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This week's practical hint- Docking in a tight space

by John Jamieson on 19 Mar 2012
Docking in a tight space .. .
Two multi-million dollar sport fishermen are docked flush against the fuel pier. The dockmaster has told you to lie alongside in the narrow space between them. You will have about a foot on each side once you dock.

Where do you aim on your approach and how can you bring your boat alongside under complete control? Let the pros guide you with these easy steps...


All boats and ships, no matter their size, have a spot along each side called a 'pivot point'. You can determine this point in an open area. Hold the tiller all the way to one side, or turn the sailboat wheel hard over. Then, place the shifter into forward propulsion at idle speed.

Project an imaginary line from a point located between the beam and bow to the center of this turning circle (see 'Pivot Point' illustration). As you turn, notice that your pivot point stays lined up with the center of the circle. In most small cruising sailboats, the pivot point will be just forward of the beam. Use your pivot point to fine tune your approach to a slip or pier.

When docking inside a slip, use your pivot point to know when to turn. You often need to make a 90 degree turn to enter a slip from a narrow canal or channel. Line up your pivot point with one of the outer pilings to make a perfect turn every time.

When docking alongside a pier or seawall between two boats, aim for a spot aft of the forward boat, equal to about 1/3 of your overall length. Be sure to include any projections like a bowsprit or anchors in your calculation. Point your bow toward this 'aim-point' on your approach (see 'Aim Point' illustration).

Here's an example. Let's say you have a 30 foot sloop, with three feet of bowsprit and anchors. You would choose an aim-point about 11 feet (1/3 x 33) aft of the forward boat. Once the bow reaches the aim-point, use an after bow spring to hold your position and work the stern in to the pier.

For the purposes of clarity at this stage, we will make the approach with no influences from wind and current.

Use spring, rudder, and throttle alongside:

Remember the basic crew assignments of spring line, roving fender, and clear communications. The more you prepare and communicate beforehand, the better the evolution will turn out. Here are some basic facts about using the big three: spring lines, rudder, and throttle:

* Spring lines:

Use long docking springs. Look at the illustrations to the right. The entire spring line runs from the boat, loops around the piling, and leads back to the boat. This takes a lot of docking line, but it's vital not to short-change yourself--and here's why. Short springs 'snub up' and you won't be able to bring the stern in. It'll stick out there like one of those wide-load mobile homes you see teetering down the highway. Longer spring lines put you in control and allow the stern to come in flush to the pier.

* Rudder:

Once the bow touches the pier or piling, put the sailboat wheel or tiller hard over and leave it there. Hard rudder and springs work together like wind and sails. Time and time again, I've worked with folks that make a perfect docking approach, start springing their boat into the pier--and then ease off on the rudder. The effect of the spring will be lost when this happens. With time, you will be able to fine tune this technique, but for now, use hard rudder to bring the stern in when docking, or to work the stern out when un-docking.

* Throttle:

Use idle throttle speed except in exceptional cases of heavy wind or current. Develop this mindset - eggs, not fenders--eggs. Imagine that eggs line your hull instead of fenders. Now, dock your boat or put her into your slip. See what I mean? Keep that in mind with every maneuvering speed you use in close quarters on any boat you handle in any situation anywhere in the world.

Once your bow arrives at the aim point, pass the after bow spring around an aft piling. Then follow these steps:

Docking:

1. Turn the sailboat wheel hard away from the pier (or hold the tiller toward the pier).
2. Shift into idle ahead and use minimum throttle.
3. Watch the stern. Keep an eye on the bow to make sure you stay in position.
4. Pass over the rest of the lines when done.
5. For temporary stops, leave the boat in idle forward propulsion with full rudder.

Un-Docking:

1. Rig an after bow spring so that it loops around an aft piling and back to a boat cleat.
2. Turn the sailboat wheel hard toward the pier (or hold the tiller away from the pier).
3. Shift into idle ahead and use minimum throttle.
4. Watch the stern. Keep an eye on the bow to make sure you stay in position.
5. Once the stern projects into the channel, cast off the spring and pull it aboard. Back out into the channel.

Practice these simple boat handling tips to gain the confidence to dock or un-dock your boat--wherever in the world you choose to cruise!

John Jamieson (Captain John) teaches sailing skippers the no-nonsense cruising skills they need beyond sailing school. Sign up for his highly popular free sailing tips newsletter here. Become a member for instant access to 425+ articles, video tutorials, newsletters, and free eBooks.

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